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Sweet white balls of sponge after 10,000km on a bicycle

Brazilian adventure cyclist Leandro Martins holds his national flag with cycling instructor Mithun Das in Calcutta.
Picture by Kuntal Chakrabarty

I want to ride my bicycle,

I want to ride my bike,

I want to ride my bicycle,

I want to ride it where I like

— Bicycle Race by Queen

Coffee with the Pope in the Vatican, a BigMac in Nazareth, bouncing through Israel and Palestine, pedalling past tanks in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and playing hopscotch with the traffic in Esplanade.

Brazilian Leandro Martins’s adventures — some intended, some serendipitous — during a 10,000km journey on a bicycle could make an intrepid bucket list look like a grocery checklist.

The journey began in May 2013 with a tent to sleep at night, a stove to cook on and two wheels to keep him going.

The 38-year-old from Porto Alegre, Brazil, pedal-started his journey from Amsterdam, where he has been living since 2007. He intends to ride up to Vietnam and, if health and luck permit, make a trip to the Great Wall of China before heading back to Brazil.

“I just wanted to do it,” smiled Leandro, sounding more like an extension of a Nike slogan rather than a continental cousin called Che who spurred a revolution after a similar youthful adventure on a motorcycle.

India was the 12th country on his itinerary after cycling through Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Vatican City, Greece, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and a quick detour to Egypt.

When he crossed the Bally bridge early last month and entered Calcutta, Leandro knew from the glances of passers-by that he was entering a different zone.

Unlike Mumbai where he landed in October and the rest of the country, he was not greeted here with a perfunctory “Hello, which country?” despite a bright Brazilian flag stuck to the cycle’s front basket announcing his nationality.

Leandro in Calcutta

Leandro is in football territory and at times, he admitted, the average Calcuttan knows more about his national team than he does.

“Do you think Brazil will win the World Cup?” “Is Neymar realising his potential at Barcelona?” “Is Thiago Silva the right man to lead Brazil?”

He fielded tougher questions from complete strangers than Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari does at a media grill.

“People in all countries, except India, immediately recognise the Brazilian flag thanks to football. But in Calcutta, I instantly realised that I am in a city of football lovers,” said Leandro.

There are Brazilians playing in the Indian league. “Really?” he asked, mouth agape.

He kept his mouth open for another ball, a sweetball. “What do you call those sweet white balls of sponge?” he asked. Rosogollas! “Well, I popped half a dozen of them during the festival of the goddess of learning (Saraswati Puja).”

Leandro with Pope Francis at the Vatican

Leandro’s Calcutta experience was not limited to spherical objects sweet and soccer. Mithun Das, a professional mountain biker and trainer cycled all the way from Joka to Salt Lake to meet him. They spent a couple of hours exchanging notes on their cycles, the terrain in the subcontinent and cycling in a city where pedal-pushers are banned on most of the thoroughfares.

The Brazilian had travelled through Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Delhi, Dharamsala, Varanasi and Patna for five months before arriving in Calcutta on February 1 — his final stop in the country.

Leandro’s cycle suffered just four punctures in the first five months of his journey during which he toured 11 countries. In the next five months on Indian roads, he had to tackle nine.

While his tent served him well for most of his trip, he spent his night sleeping inside police stations during his month-long journey through Uttar Pradesh as a precaution against thieves and muggers.

The most memorable moments of his journey includes diving in the Dead Sea, scaling the pyramids, praying in Bethlehem and surviving the rough seas between Italy and Greece.

The most thrilling, though, was meeting Pope Francis. He had written to a senior Vatican official, stating his desire to meet the Pope. He had followed it up with new letters every few days right up to his arrival at the Vatican till his phone rang early one morning and the voice at the other end told him that the Pope had agreed to give him an audience.

“You do not land up in Rome and say hello to the Pope. I had asked the official to tell Pope Francis that there is a gaucho (people of south Brazil and Argentina) travelling the world on a bike and he would be molto felcice (delighted) to meet him.”

His hometown Porto Alegre is the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul that shares a border with Argentina.

During the hour-long meeting, they shared jokes in Spanish, spoke of their families, of football and he showed him his bicycle. “I told him this is my house, my bed and my kitchen.”

He whipped out a big Brazil flag from his backpack, which contained messages and signatures of people from each of the countries he had cycled through. Pope Francis signed with the message: “Que Dios te acompane (may God accompany you) – Francisco – 18 –7-13.”

As he put his helmet back on and mounted the saddle, the Pope’s final three words stuck with him as his motto. “Life is crazy.”

On February 8, he dismantled his faithful cycle and took a flight to Bangkok. He proceeded to Vietnam last week.

The adventure cyclist has been meticulously chronicling his journey in a blog: “Leandro by Bike”.